Attended the Agile Alliance‘s OnAgile 2017 Conference yesterday. This is always an excellent conference and you can’t beat the price!
I created a mind map throughout the course of the conference as a way to organize my thoughts and key points. This doesn’t capture all the points by any means. Just those that stood out as important or new for me. I missed most of the first session due to connectivity issues.
I recently resigned from the company I had been employed by for over 5 years. The reason? It was time.
During my tenure1 I had the opportunity to re-define my career several times within the organization in a way that added value and kept life productive, challenging, and rewarding. Each re-definition involved a rather extensive mind mapping exercises with hundreds of nodes to described what was working, what wasn’t working, what needed fixing, and where I believed I could add the highest value.
This past spring events prompted another iteration of this process. It began with the question “What wouldn’t happen if I didn’t go to work today?”2 This is the flip of asking “What do I do at work?” The latter is a little self-serving. We all want to believe we are adding value and are earning our pay. The answer is highly filtered through biases, justifications, excuses, and rationalizations. But if in the midsts of a meeting you ask yourself, “What would be different if I were not present or otherwise not participating?”, the answer can be a little unsettling.
This time around, in addition to mind mapping skills, I was equipped with the truly inspiring work of Tanmay Vora and his sketchnote project. Buy me a beer some day and I’ll let you in on a few of my discoveries. Suffice it to say, the overall picture wasn’t good. I was getting the feeling this re-definition cycle was going to include a new employer.
A cascade of follow-on questions flowed from this iteration’s initial question. At the top:
Why am I staying?
Is this work aligned with my purpose?
Have my purpose and life goals changed?
Of course, it wasn’t this simple. The organization changed, as did I, in a myriad of ways. While exploring these questions, I was reminded of a story my Aikido teacher, Gaku Homma, would tell when describing his school. He said it was like a rope. In the beginning, it had just a few threads that joined with him to form a simple string. Not very strong. Not very obvious. But very flexible. Over time, more and more students joined his school and wove their practice into Nippon Kan’s history. Each new thread subtlety changed the character of the emerging rope. More threads, more strength, and more visibility. Eventually, an equilibrium emerges. Some of those threads stop after a few short weeks of classes, other’s (like mine) are 25 years long before they stop, and for a few their thread ends in a much more significant way.
Homma Sensi has achieved something very difficult. The threads that form Nippon Kan’s history are very strong, very obvious, and yet remain very flexible. Even so, there came a time when the right decision for me was to leave, taking with me a powerful set of skills, many good memories, and friendships. The same was true for my previous employer. Their rope is bending in a way that is misaligned with my purpose and goals. Neither good nor bad. Just different. Better to leave with many friendships intact and a strong sense of having added value to the organization during my tenure.
The world is full of opportunities. And sometimes you have to deliberately and intentionally clear all the collected clutter from your mental workspace so those opportunities have a place to land. Be attentive to moments like this before your career is remembered only as someone who yells at clouds and tilts at windmills.
There are some decidedly Zen-like paradoxes to practicing almost any form of agile methodology. People practice agile everywhere, yet they have a hard time finding it at work. It’s the most natural form of technical project management I’ve experienced, yet people seem determined to make it harder than it is and over-think the principles. And when they shift toward simplifying their agile practice, they go contrary to good advice that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
So a challenge: Before the month is out, take a moment to reflect on some important task you completed that had nothing to do with work and see how many things you did reflect an agile principle or common practice. Maybe it’s work you did on a hobby or at a volunteer gig. Perhaps it involved some kitchen wizardry, a tactful communication maneuver with your children, or routine house maintenance. Did you iterate across several possible solutions until you found success? Did you decide to decide something later so that you could gather more information? Did you take a particular task to “good enough” so that you could complete a more urgent related task? And which of your insights can you bring into work with you?
In this article I’ll describe a recent experience with Agile in the Wild and the lessons that can be applied in your work environment.
The challenge was how to put two 90 degree bends across a 10 inch arch in a 12 foot long, quarter inch thick piece of red oak (1) for the edge of a breakfast nook table. To do this I had to work out a way to bend long pieces of wood without having to mess with the need for a super extra-large steam box. The idea came from a shipwright named Louis Sauzedde. His trick is to use heavy poly tubing(2) to steam-bend wood in place rather than use a traditional steam box. The advantage is that the wood doesn’t cool when transferring from a steam box to a jig and, best of all for small shops, you don’t have to take up space storing a large steam box. Version 1 of my steam kettle was built using an outdoor propane burner (3), a re-purposed brew kettle (4), an oil drip pan (5), PVC piping (6), a radiator hose (7) for positioning, and the unfinished table top (8) as a jig.
#6 was a mistake. The PVC worked, but didn’t hold up to the heat. It didn’t exactly melt, but it definitely didn’t hold shape over the hour long steaming process. #8 was a big mistake. Concern about damaging the walnut top made set-up longer than it needed to be and I couldn’t get the clamps where I needed them. I was trying to take a shortcut and not hassle with making a proper jig. Oh, and another piece of important advice. Always, always, ALWAYS be wearing a good pair of work gloves (1). All parts of the steam system – burner to kettle to steam pipe to radiator hose to poly tubing to wood – are HOT and more than likely something will slip during clamping and you’ll have to grab hold. Not much fun with bare hands.
The end result was a not-quite-bent-enough piece of wood (Westie terrier, “Rose,” for scale.) The wood needed to be steamed again.
Version 1 of the steamer was modified such that the drip pan was flipped (1) for a better seal on the kettle, metal piping (2) replaced the PVC, and a more flexible radiator hose (3) was used for easier positioning. Version 2 of the steamer was a significant improvement. I got better steam output from this rig so the lignin in the wood was a little easier to bend in a shorter amount of time. Most importantly, a throw-away jig (4) was built for much better clamping.
Must have safety feature: An anti-curious-dog flame guard made out of sheep fence (1). Curious dog (2) optional.
After bending and clamping in place the steam was removed, the plastic cut away, and the wood left in the shop until I had free time to unclamp the oak from the jig. With the jig I was able to clamp the wood at multiple places across the arc. And no worries about damaging the expensive walnut of the actual table top.
Back in the shop, the edge is glued, clamped, and left to set after dealing with an unexpectedly uncooperative bend that shows signs of having been cut from stock near a knot (1).
A day to set, a lot of edge routing, and a bit of sanding shows the end result: Near-perfect 90 degree bends. I was also able to remove a little bit of twist that was occurring in the wood thanks to the better steam output from Kettle 2.0 and the use of multiple smaller clamps across the arc. The final unfinished result shows a tight fit between the edging and the table (1).
Get help. Someone already knows the solution you seek, or most of it anyway.
Short cuts are often the long way to get to where you are going.
The MVP: Goes together fast, is cheap, built just good enough to actually test in the wild (safely, I would add.)
Reuse existing assets that are adapted to suit the current need (Can equipment used for brewing beer be used in fine woodworking? Absolutely! All you have to do is think outside the brew kettle.)
The Jig: It isn’t part of the final product. In all likelihood it won’t ever be used again. Was it waste or an essential part of getting to the final product? Design flow diagrams and wireframes are analogous to jigs. You’re supposed to throw them away! Think how utterly horrific our final products would be if we included all the interim work in what we delivered to the client.